A Republican senator wants to bar schools from teaching sex education before seventh grade.
The bill from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, also deletes “homosexuality” from acts constituting “sexual conduct” in a section of the statutes, a move that appears to ban any discussion of homosexuality during sex ed courses.
Allen has already scheduled the measure for a Jan. 14 hearing in the Senate Education Committee, which she chairs, making it the first 2020 salvo in an conflict that’s been brewing since last spring, when lawmakers repealed a decades-old law that forbade the promotion of a “homosexual lifestyle.”
On the other side, Democratic Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley wants to require schools to teach comprehensive and “medically accurate” sex education on an opt-out basis. Senate Democrats plan to introduce similar legislation in their chamber.
Democrats, who hope to build on their success in repealing the state’s “no promo homo” law, accused their Republican colleagues of using a furor over sex education to rally parents wary of children getting exposed to sexually explicit material in classrooms.
Geoff Esposito, a lobbyist with the progressive-leaning Creosote Partners, said the repeal of that law shows “anti-LGBT forces” have been losing ground in recent years.
“[Conservatives] are pushing an incredibly unpopular issue among the exact people they need to win over, and threatening vulnerable legislators’ re-election with a bad vote that will get a ton of media attention,” he said.
Aside from explicitly barring schools from teaching sex education before seventh grade, Allen’s bill would remove references to “homosexuality” from a section of the criminal code describing types of sexual conduct. The bill then describes “sex education” by referring to the section deleting “homosexulity;” thus, potentially precluding any discussion of homosexuality in sex ed courses.
Neither Allen nor Sharon Slater, president of the Gilbert-based nonprofit Family Watch International, immediately returned calls. Family Watch International hosted Allen this summer at a discussion about sex education. Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, another Republican lawmaker actively discussing sex education, also could not be reached for comment.
Socially conservative groups and their allies in the Legislature have raised questions about whether sex ed, as currently taught in schools, is age-appropriate or aligned with “family values.”
“As a parent, you have the right to know exactly what your child is learning about sex. You even have the right to examine the materials they are exposed to. Are they age-appropriate? Do they align with your family’s values? Are they science-based?” Barto said on her campaign website.
Democrats view Allen’s bill as an attempt to undo the state’s repeal of the “No Promo Homo” law. Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, who is openly gay, said he might have been able to come out sooner had his Arizona teachers been able to answer his questions about homosexuality.
“This is really a health issue,” he said.
Sex education, like all other curricula in Arizona, is primarily handled at the school district level. But Allen’s bill would require all districts and charter schools to revise their existing sex education courses to comply with her bill.
Under the bill, all coursework would have to be developed during publicly noticed meetings, and curricula would be available for public comment for at least 60 days before a school board could adopt the educational guidelines. The bill says schools would not be required to provide sex education, and attempts to get around new public notice requirements by providing it after school hours would not be allowed.
The bill advances the state’s existing abstinence-promoting guidelines by requiring any sex education instruction to emphasize avoiding, rather than reducing, sexual risks and by encouraging pupils who are sexually active to “return to abstinence.”
It would also forbid schools from providing any instruction that “normalize(s) sexual conduct between minors or sexual conduct with a minor,” “suggest(s) that any type of sexual conduct between minors is safe or without risk” or provides materials that could be deemed harmful to minors.
That last clause addresses education materials, such as the commonly used — and banned — sex education book “It’s Perfectly Normal,” which Allen and other conservative lawmakers find inappropriate. House Speaker Rusty Bowers in September described the book as “grooming children to be sexualized” and teaching them how to masturbate.
The book, which discusses puberty, pregnancy and how sex works, includes color illustrations of cartoonish naked people. Conservatives charge it is sexually explicit, akin to showing minors pornography.
Allen’s proposed ban on sex education for students in kindergarten through 6th grade would not extend to instruction on health, including puberty, or personal safety, potentially easing an expected conflict with planned legislation to teach children how to identify and report sexual abuse.
The Arizona Department of Education expects sexual education to be a top issue this legislative session, although Richie Taylor, who speaks for the department, said State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman doesn’t plan to push legislation on this subject.
Last summer, Bowers referred to Hoffman as a “radical” for supporting changes to sex education at the State Board of Education.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, told Arizona Capitol Times she has no intention of filing any sex ed bills of her own in 2020 but agrees it’s a major issue in the upcoming session.
“It is important to many parents, and legislators are responding to that,” Townsend said.